Lessons From Past

The Chinese aggression on Sikkim frontier has caused panic in the north-eastern region, where the memories of 1962 war still haunt the people. The “lessons from past” that China has reminded India in an oblique reference to the latter’s humiliating defeat in that war are very vivid for the North-east, especially the present Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. Recent developments right from Indian soldiers stopping the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to the PLA destroying two old bunkers of the Indian Army, have left the region’s people worried much more than the rest of the region. The tri-junction between India, China and Bhutan, the current centre of hostility, is not very far from the infamous Chicken Neck. The only 22-km-wide corridor that connects the North-east with the country is a strategically sensitive region. Any eventuality that leads to India’s loss of control over the small patch of land could mean blockade of supply to the entire seven states of the region.

The growing hostility on the Sikkim border has left common Indians and especially north-easterners guessing as to what has gone wrong all of a sudden. China said the trigger was Indian Army blocking the construction of a road inside ‘Chinese territory’. However, India maintained the land falls along the Bhutan-China border where latter violated an agreed ‘status quo’ by constructing the road. Almost all historians blamed Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru for his ‘forward policy’ that upset China leading to the 1962 war. But that was not known until many years after the war. What people knew was that China attacked India and captured Tawang in Arunachal and almost came up to Tezpur in Assam. Thanks to the secretive nature of defence information – and rightly so – nobody for sure knew what is exactly prompting the alarming stand-off on the Himalayas.

There could be many external factors fueling the troops behaviour along the border while there could be more to deescalate them to avoid a war. The obvious recent development that could disturb China is the bonhomie between US President Donald Trump and Narendra Modi. India has reasoned Bhutan’s formal objection to China about building of the road in Dok La area. However, the Big Brother (India) can influence Bhutan’s diplomatic activities, as China always alleges. Then, China went too far by destroying two old bunkers on the Indian side. But, does it mean China wants this escalation to go further? There are enough reasons not to do so, the country’s enormous and growing trade activities in India being one of them. And, there is no apparent reason that India wants this to go any further except for guarding its boundary with utmost strength.

(Published as The Meghalaya Guardian as editorial on July 1, 2017)

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‘Our’ People

Family always comes first; it should be. Sometimes, we speak for the community, sometimes for state and nation etc., against other similar groups or entities. Dog biting a person can make a local newspaper headline, but a news of 100 people killed in an earthquake elsewhere may not find space in the publication. Everyone caters to some local interest. Although world leaders, Narendra Modi and Donald Trump speak for their respective countries. Their job is to promote the interest of their respective countries first. Now, we have started advocating for the interest of earth – only to protect ourselves from being doomed – but not in respect to any outside entity, as yet.

There is a flurry of condemnations for the incident of racial discrimination against a Khasi woman, Tailin Lyngdoh, at Delhi Golf Club recently. Tailin, who was accompanying a guest Dr Nivedita Borthakur to a function, was thrown out of her table due to her ‘wrong’ dress code. She was wearing a Khasi traditional attire called ‘jainsem’, with which she roamed around the world with Dr Nivedita, an accomplished professional. The incident was surely condemnable. But what can be noticed in everyone joining the bandwagon is opportunism and matter of convenience.

Behind such sharp reactions there is the sentiment for ‘our people’, which can be Khasi people, Meghalaya people and also North east people. Theoretically, all these three groups can condemn the incident. And they are doing this, which is very convenient. They are not offending anyone who matter to their day-to-day lives. Both Meghalaya chief minister Mukul Sangma and his counterpart Sarbananda Sonowal registered their protest. It would have been more appropriate had a publicly boycotted Delhi Golf Club. It won’t be surprising to see Mukul dining with the who’s who at the Club in another function anytime soon. Expecting the chief minister to turn down an invite at the Club will be asking for too much!

There are many incidents of injustice happening in the country, the region and the state which have not been condemned. There have been arson attacks in Meghalaya on the railway issue for over a month, targeting the non-tribal community and government property. Although law its taking its own course, no condemnation has come through from any quarters. Political parties not taking a stand on the matter is a testimony of people finding difficult in pointing figure at ‘our people’. That becomes politically incorrect.

(Published as The Meghalaya Guardian as editorial on June 30, 2017)

Aadhaar ‘Outsiders’

Opinion making on Aadhaar is very weak in Meghalaya. Most people don’t have an individual opinion. It’s because Aadhaar penetration is still very low in the state and various groups are skeptic about the system. Privacy is not a major issue, but the fear of being alienated in own land is prominent. It could be politics or genuine fear. The anti-Aadhaar groups have been asserting that if ‘outsiders’ get enrolled into Aadhaar from Meghalaya, they would be considered permanent residents of the state. They would rob resources and jobs from the indigenous tribals.

While privacy is actually an issue, which is being felt across India, the fear of being alienated is unfounded. Hill states like Meghalaya has the protection of Sixth Schedule provisions under which ‘outsiders’ are not allowed to buy land in the state. Doing trade is open but for that non-native people have to procure trading license, which will be required even after having an Aadhaar. The companies functioning here will have to go through the same procedure as they had to before Aadhaar. There will be no special relaxation.

The only change Aadhaar has brought for the people outside its ambit is that they will increasingly face difficulties in doing various works and availing benefits. Although the government is repeatedly saying that Aadhaar is not mandatory, thanks to the Supreme Court’s strong stand, more and more entities are asking for Aadhaar from their stakeholders. The day is not far when cellular company will ask for Aadhaar number before anything to provide a connection. The reason being it is one of the most authentic identity of a person. As the percentage of Aadhaar enrollment grows more – already it is nearly 90% — the Aadhaar ‘outsiders’ will be under more pressure to come under the ambit. The government will be less and less interested to make special provision for this left out population. Every time a person from Assam and Meghalaya – the penetration is lowest in the two states – is asked for Aadhaar, he or she had to clarify that there are special exemption for the two states owing to various reasons. The privilege is not likely to last for too long as even people in the other hill states have started getting enrolled into Aadhaar in large numbers. The KSU’s apprehension about rumour that people will be deprived of various benefits if they don’t get their Aadhaar is not entirely wrong. If not deprived, people will be increasingly troubled for not having Aadhaar. Get your Aadhaar, sooner or later.

(Published as The Meghalaya Guardian as editorial on June 24, 2017)

Monroe to Madonna

As the yoga makes its entry from mainland India to North-east, one loud voice is heard – ‘It is not related to any religion’. India gave its biggest push to this ancient practice in 2015 when the country had the United Nations declared June 21 as International Yoga Day. All credit goes to the strong lobbying by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who took the reins a year before. When the world starts accepting an Indian practice, it becomes essential for Indians not be seen lagging behind. India cannot afford to give away the benefits of yoga to other nations. Let the whole world have the benefits equally, if not somewhat less than India. Now, thanks to politics and counter politics, yoga too is mired in controversy. Muslims and Christians are thinking whether it is against their religion to practice yoga. None of them want to challenge the practical benefits of yoga. They just want to be sure that their own religion is not violated.

Practice of yoga across the Indian borders is nothing new. It had been widely practised – of course by elites and semi-elites – in the western world since mid twentieth century, if not earlier. From Marylyn Monroe to Madonna, yoga has caught the fancy of many in Hollywood and outside for long. With the huge push made by the current government backed by the UN endorsement, yoga is going to scale new heights in the days to come. It could be a household practice across the world, sooner or later. And the world will gain from it.

Even under such circumstances and possibilities, the ‘promoters’ of yoga had a lot of convincing to do in the North-east. A youth organization in Mizoram, a state that proclaims to be 100% Christian, went to the extent of protesting the celebration of Yoga Day. Most of the state governments in the region including Congress-ruled Mizoram and Left-ruled Tripura held state-level official programmes to observe the Day. Meghalaya government, on the other hand, ‘stood out’ in the crowd by not doing anything. But, yoga flavor was no less as various Central government offices, institutions and defence establishments held elaborate programmes. While it cannot be denied that BJP does not have any political agenda behind pushing yoga into North-east and elsewhere, the parties either against it or keeping aloof too cannot escape the blame of depriving the society of a healthy practice for their political gains.

(Published as The Meghalaya Guardian as editorial on June 23, 2017)

Utter Vagueness

It is not yet clear as to what ‘facilities’ would be there in the proposed facilitation centres ‘to check influx’ in the state of Meghalaya. The government, which has agreed to set up a ‘comprehensive mechanism’ after the bloody ILP agitation in 2013 claiming at least three lives of ‘outsiders’, appears to be in a dilemma as to what job is to be assigned to the facilitation centres to be set up in the ‘entry-exit points’ along inter-state (with Assam) and international (with Bangladesh) borders. While the international border is already guarded by the Border Security Force (BSF), the pressure groups’ demanding check on ‘outsiders’ is the lone inter-state border with Assam. The term outsiders (locally known as ‘dkhar’) they mean any non-indigenous person especially non-tribal people. So the scanner is on mostly Indians and some suspected Bangladeshi nationals coming from Assam as BSF is already doing the job of checking the influx of Bangladeshis.

Chief minister Mukul Sangma once said the facilitation centres would have facilities like tourism information centre, eateries and other amenities, besides the checking mechanism. Departments including Labour and Revenue would be involved in the work. Now, in the wake of the fresh trouble of violent anti-railway protest the chief minister directed the North-Eastern Frontier Railway (NFR) to set up a facilitation centre at Mendipathar, the state’s first railway head in North Garo Hills. By doing this Sangma wanted to convey a message that his government is taking necessary steps to check influx of outsiders. At the same time, it is not clear as to what facility the NFR is going to provide at the facilitation centre.

How would the NFR do the registration of huge number of passengers coming and going out every day? At least, the Railways would not provide funds for such a work. At the most, it can provide a space for the state government to carry out the job. But then, will the state government be able to manage such a huge work force. If the plan of setting up over 40 entry-exit points have to be carried out, the government would need an entire department. And it would be foolish to expect Central aid for the purpose as Centre would never welcome any mechanism that hampers free movement of Indians within the country. At this juncture, it looks like the entry-exit points are going hang fire for quite some time to be marked by sporadic violent anti-railway protests. The lack of clarity on the facilitation centres is because of the opposite priorities of the government and the pressure groups led by the Khasi Students’ Union (KSU). While the pressure groups want the centres to be stringent mechanism to check identity of every individual, the government wants it to be a goody-goody place so that tourists are not offended.

(Published as The Meghalaya Guardian as editorial on June 17, 2017)

Unending Attacks

A brief lull in the violent acts of suspected anti-railway activists has been broken again. There were incidents of torching and hurling of petrol bombs in Shillong and Nongpoh. The targets are either government office or property owned by non-tribal people. It’s a blessing that not attack has been made on life as yet. Else the state will plunge into the same infamy of bloody violence of 2013 when at least three non-tribal persons lost their lives in separate petrol bomb attacks. This week, a truck was torched at Mawiong on the outskirts of Shillong. Obviously, the truck belonged to a non-tribal person. Another non-tribal house was attacked with a petrol bomb, but it failed to explode, and no damage caused to the property and its inmates. Last week, a borewell drilling truck was torched in broad daylight. That too belonged to an ‘outsider’, the term used for any non-indigenous person irrespective of their length of stay (sometimes even generations) in the state.

The second front of attack is government property, which is commonly known as ‘nobody’s property. Property worth crores were burnt during the 2013 violent agitation. This time too, a couple of offices were already burnt, the last being a sericulture office at Nongpoh. Besides the property, scores of important documents turned into ashes. The loss is uncountable. The suspected activists choose their targets very carefully. There is no visible public anger so far against the violent acts. Here lies the meticulous planning. The attackers are careful that not a single indigenous person should be harmed individually. The pressure groups cannot afford to lose the public support. It’s hard for common indigenous people to understand that such targeted attacks against non-tribals and government property are not going to bring any good to them, if not loss.

The first obvious adverse effect of such attacks is on ‘locals’ staying outside the state. People in the know of things inside Meghalaya – especially the way ‘outsiders’ are treated by some – will not play the best host to them. Remember, Meghalaya has a small population and cannot afford to earn infamy among the rest of India. Secondly, the fund-crunch-hit government will take a long time to restore the damaged property and keep things back on track. It would be hard for the government to seek dole from the Centre for such damages, which establishes the government’s inability to control the state of affairs.

So far, thanks to lack of media publicity outside about happenings in Meghalaya, the state is still known as favourite tourist destination with the locals playing good hosts, which is actually the truth. Disruptive elements are always a few. But they can mislead the public by using the latters’ sentiment, for their self-interest. The public be better careful.

(Published as The Meghalaya Guardian as editorial on June 16, 2017)

NE’s Apprehension of Aadhaar

The main concern among most Indians about Aadhaar is privacy. If the personal biometric data falls into any wrong hand, it can spell disaster. The government and the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) time and again have assured the public about safety of the biometric data. Massive awareness drives have been launched across the country to allay such fear. While the fear is not unfounded, the authorities’ effort to ensure complete protection of the data also cannot be overlooked. Most importantly, an Aadhaar kind of system has become absolutely necessary for India if we have to keep pace with the rest of the world. The 12 digit unique-identity number being issued to every Indian resident based on their biometric and demographic data is going to be the key to overall development of the country in the next decades. There is no doubt about it.

However, the apprehension about Aadhaar is the North-east especially states like Meghalaya is slightly different. The Aadhaar drive was not launched in Assam due to the ongoing update of National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the state. As the NRC is plagued by many complex issues, Aadhaar is set to be delayed in the state. In Meghalaya, the Aadhaar is facing opposition from pressure groups who are wary of enrollment of ‘outsiders’ (Indians) and they becoming permanent residents of the state after getting into Aadhaar. As on 15th May, 2017, in both Assam and Meghalaya, the Aadhar penetration was below 10%. In other NE states like Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Manipur, the penetration is between 50% to 70%. However, Tripura and Sikkim raced ahead with over 90%, above the national rate average of nearly 89.6%, in Aadhaar enrollment.

The difference in the reasons of apprehension in North-east and the rest of the country is not unfounded. The population of North-eastern states, except for Assam (for which massive influx from Bangladesh is responsible) is miniscule and unlikely to put a burden on the rest of the country. But the vice versa is seen as dangerous by groups fighting for rights of indigenous people in the region. While Aadhaar has become absolutely necessary and likely to hamper the country’s growth if it fails to have 100% penetration soon, the government has to find out meaningful and reasonable ways to allay concerns of the various groups in the region.

(Published as The Meghalaya Guardian as editorial on June 10, 2017)

Targeted Attacks

Torching of a borewell drilling truck in Shillong was not a random attack. Police rightly pointed out its probable connection to the anti-railway protest in the state. The attack also reminds the horror of 2013 when at least three non-tribal persons, all successful traders, lost their lives in petrol bomb attacks perpetrated by pro-ILP activists. The drilling truck is owned by one successful South Indian businessman, who runs the city’s famous Madras Café. Although police are right it their investigation approach, there is more that needs to be done against such ‘planned’ attacks at the government level. The city cannot afford to have the 2013 days back again.

The cloud of violence is looming large on the so-far peaceful city, in the context of the growing anti-railway protest. The apprehension is vindicated by the imposition of 144 CrPC banning gathering five or more people or carrying of lethal weapons by the East Khasi Hills district administration. The violent attack on the under-construction railway station at Ronghona, Byrnihat in Ri-Bhoi district took place on May 27. Khasi Students’ Union (KSU) activists attacked construction workers and security personnel at the spot and also assaulted the district superintendent of police. Around five KSU activists have been booked in various charges in this connection. Two main leaders of the attack were remanded back in police custody, two days after they were put in judicial custody. This could perhaps be the reason for the attack on the drilling truck in Shillong.

Violence and extremist acts are part of most movements. But it is always expected that people fight for their reasons without violence. Sadly, that seldom happens. Vulnerable people are targeted and the perpetrators go scot free, in the name of the ‘movement’. There is little chance that the drilling truck was randomly chosen for attack. The owner has been doing business in Shillong for decades, and perhaps never offered any resistance to the anti-railway protest. Similarly, during ILP agitations, all the victims are old settlers in the city. If they earned a lot from this land, their contribution towards the economy also cannot be ruled out. While the movement is said to be new ‘outsiders’ coming into the state once the railway line is commissioned, the attacks are always on people who have settled here for decades. The only similarity between them is that they do not belong to any indigenous tribes of the state. The irony needs to be understood fast.

(Published as The Meghalaya Guardian as editorial on June 9, 2017)

Beef Bugle

For the first time in Meghalaya, a non-issue is going to be the main poll issue, if Congress is successful in its attempt. For BJP, beef eating is not an issue in the state. It cannot afford to make it an issue in a Christian-dominated state. This is not Uttar Pradesh or Gujarat where you can get votes by banning beef and cow slaughter. Cow is not ‘Gou Mata’ here. It’s a staple food. BJP cannot have the wildest dream of making cow an animal of reverence in Meghalaya or any other hill states of North-east. The still-Hindu-dominated Assam has also noted voted the saffron party for its keenness to see beef ban across country. There is no Gau Rakshak Bahini even in Assam. For the BJP, the only viable poll issue is the “underdevelopment” in 60-year-rule of the Congress. Their favourite issue is poverty, bad roads, delayed projects etc., which are of course genuine issues, but not specific to Meghalaya.

It is the Congress which wants to make beef a special issue for the coming election. BJP being seen as a Hindu party, it is very convenient for the Congress to cast an apprehension among vulnerable public mind. It won’t take much for Congress to convince people that if BJP comes to power they would have to stop eating beef, a regular diet across Meghalaya. What Congress is right in saying is that BJP has a double standard on the beef issue in respect of North-east and rest of the country. In other parts, the party seeks votes for its effort to ban beef while in North-east the argument given is the party respects the food habit of people of this part of the region. Does that suggest the party does not have respect to Muslims eating beef in other parts of the country?

While both the parties have loopholes on their stand on the beef issue, the Congress going all guns blazing is something no digestible. It was this grand old party which was behind writing the Constitution where in the Directive Principles which seeks “prohibition of slaughter, of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle”. Although Directive Principles are broad guidelines and not rights, many states including those ruled by Congress followed this and banned cow slaughter. Now it is up to the state government to take the decision. Even if BJP comes to power, the party cannot afford to ban cow slaughter in Meghalaya. The day it does it, it will be thrown out of power the next day. So, it is almost foolish for the people to believe in the Congress sloganeering against “beef ban”, at least in respect of Meghalaya.

(Published as The Meghalaya Guardian as editorial on June 3, 2017)

Joining Bandwagon

Former education minister Manas Chaudhuri minced no words when he said he is joining the BJP bandwagon. Significantly, two politicians – Chaudhuri and a district council member Sounder S Cajee – who are the latest entrants in the saffron fold, are from the same constituency. They fought election against each other from South Shillong in 2013. Both lost to the incumbent NCP legislator Sanbor Shullai. And there are talks that Shullai too is considering a plunge in the fast growing saffron pool. Where will the BJP fit them? No wonder BJP national spokesperson and Meghalaya in-charge Nalin Kohli said Chaudhuri and Cajee joined the party ‘without any preconditions’! Chaudhuri too said the same for himself. They all joined for ‘sabka saath sabka vikash’!

On the same day, Nalin Kohli announced the party’s decision to expel a district level leader for his facebook post about organising a beef party to celebrate Narendra Modi-led government’s three years. And more had to happen that day. By evening the news came in that former militant leader turned BJP politician Bernard Marak decided to quit the party. He said he does not want to be in a ‘Hindu party’ in a Christian-dominated state. Bernard was the one who in a public meeting said most BJP leaders in Meghalaya eat beef, something quite indigestible for the party at national level. Bernard’s decision to quit the party close on the heels of the radical statement suggests a severe reprimand on him from the party’s high command either at state or national level.

On one end the BJP is accumulating strength while losing some on the other. There are lot of highly opportunistic people and selfish people joining the bandwagon. They are the same people whom the people discarded for being in the wrong party. However, there were some better and efficient people who also did not win for being on the wrong boat. All of them will now have the Modi advantage. They can seek votes for Modi, if not for themselves! In politics, everyone is welcome unless the person is legally barred from contesting election. It’s for the party to decide whom to pick for the electoral battle. After all, the winners have to cater to public interest, at least along with his self interest, for next five years.

(Published as The Meghalaya Guardian as editorial on June 2, 2017)